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The public's right to know about downed airliners

Posted by Christopher Shea  August 3, 2010 12:55 PM

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Most Americans would want to know if an airline crash was caused by terrorists, even if revealing such knowledge would devastate the airline industry and make it harder to prevent future attacks. The finding, reported by three economists in a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, underscores the problematic nature of secrecy in a democracy. Should citizens get what's arguably best for them, which is safety, or what they desire--knowledge?

As it happens, public attitudes vary considerably, depending on the scenarios they are presented with. V. Kerry Smith, of Arizona State University, Carol Mansfield, of RTI International, and H. Allen Klaiber, of Penn State, analyzed a survey given to residents of 33 U.S. metropolitan areas, in 2009. (A smaller survey was administered in early 2010, to explore if the attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing of a flight into Detroit had altered attitudes, but it did not seem to make a difference.)

The researchers presented three hypothetical cases. More than 80 percent of the respondents would want to know that an airplane crash had been caused by terrorists, regardless of the consequences. Answers varied, but by surprisingly little, depending on how much more likely a future attack would be.

On the other hand, roughly three quarters of survey respondents said they would prefer that the government keep secret the thwarting of a coordinated attack on several airports, if revealing the surveillance tactics might make future attacks more likely. A similar percentage said that they would be content if an attempt to disable the nation's credit- and debit-card system were concealed, if that would help anti-terror efforts

Some security experts have advocated secrecy in all three scenarios, but the public appears to be making a firm--though not necessarily logically consistent--distinction when it comes to specific deadly incidents.

The paper is the first to probe national attitudes toward "public deception in the name of security," according to its authors.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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